Cancun Classroom

Balcony view at Marriott Cancun Resort

A Mexico getaway delivers more than a beach vacation for contributing PLAYGROUND writer Megan Padilla and her 9-year-old daughter Ailigh, who were invited on a media trip to stay at Marriott Cancun Resort. Here’s the story of their educational and exotic mother/daughter summer adventure.

Words and photos by Megan Padilla

Our 15 minutes is counting down as I chop fresh fish and squid while my daughter plucks cilantro leaves off their stems and squeezes limes into our ceviche. We are competing against two other families in a friendly cook-off on the lawn at the Marriott Cancun Resort. Our aprons are damp from our swimsuits and the hair beneath our chef hats is post-swim crazy. JW Marriott chef de cuisines Arturo Parra is circling our stations, checking on our progress. He will judge our creations.

Ailigh gets the idea to halve a pineapple and scoop it out to use as a bowl for our dish. A hotel sous chef jumps in to help her and it’s game on! So far, our shared adventure has delivered all I’d hoped for and more.

Family ceviche cook-off at Marriott Cancun Resort

As my daughter’s 9th birthday approached, I wanted to plan a getaway for just the two of us, a chance to spend a few days giving her my undivided attention. I envisioned some indulgences we’d both enjoy: snorkeling, pedicures and ordering room-service breakfast while watching the Royal Wedding from bed. But I also wanted to take her out of her comfort zone. I’ve learned that that’s where the unforgettable happens.

Having traveled throughout Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, I set my sights on Cancun, precisely where the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea meet. It’s an affordable and direct two-hour flight on JetBlue from Orlando. Plus, this destination would deliver my daughter’s first passport stamp and expose her to conversational Spanish outside of her classroom. Several years ago, I stayed at the upscale JW Marriott Cancun Resort & Spa, so I knew that its next-door sister property, the Marriott Cancun Resort, is a family-friendly beach resort that would guarantee the “vacation” part of our trip while also promising security and peace of mind.

To kick off our getaway, we spend our first morning in the Cancun-Isla Mujeres Marine Park snorkeling over the artificial reef made with hundreds of submerged sculptures – many cast from local people – that form Cancun’s Underwater Museum of Art. This environmental art gallery has been on my “must do” list for years, and I’m so excited to experience it for the first time with Ailigh.

Heading out to snorkel at Cancun’s Underwater Museum

After lunch, Ailigh is desperate to exchange her U.S. dollars for pesos. A teachable moment! If $1 U.S. is worth about 18 Mexican pesos, how many pesos will $40 buy?

A trip to the open-air Coral Negro Flea Market becomes a lesson in math, negotiating and assertiveness. I redirect the shopkeepers, “Talk to her. She’s the one who is shopping.” No way is Ailigh about to deplete her cache of $720 MXN by spending $500 MXN on a bracelet from the first vendor she meets. Each time she says “no,” the price comes down, until she proudly walks away with that bracelet for $200 MXN (about $12 USD).

Mexican chocolate at Ah Cacao

Emboldened by our interactions with locals, we don’t hesitate to board a public bus pulling in directly across the street from the market. Busses run all day up and down the strip along the Hotel Zone and cost only $12 MXN (about $0.60 USD per person).

On the ride back to the hotel, we spot the Ferris wheel in front of the mall called La Isla Shopping Village and spontaneously decide to pull the cord to signal our stop. We’d heard about a shop here called Ah Cacao that exclusively sells Mexican coffee, chocolate and vanilla. After a few mornings of unlimited Mexican hot chocolate served in child-sized mugs made of glazed pottery at La Capilla’s breakfast buffet at the Marriott, Ailigh wants to bring home the hockey-puck shaped discs of spiced chocolate to recreate the drink at home.

Dessert in a cup at Las Hijas de la Tosdada

At the tiny storefront, she also selects a molinillo, a carved wooden whisk traditionally used to make the drink. Afterward, we confidently hop on to another bus, exchange “hola,” “por favor” and “gracias” with the driver and return to the air-conditioned comfort of our hotel, feeling accomplished.

A family visit to Cancun isn’t complete without at least a little exploration of Mayan culture, history and ruins. A day trip to the spectacular pyramids and ruins of Chichen Itza is bucket list-worthy, but we didn’t have time for the all-day excursion. Instead, we visited the excellent Maya Museum of Cancun. This museum is open from 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. every day except Monday. Cost is $70 MXD per person (about $3.70 USD); kids 13 and under are free. Note: They only accept Mexican pesos. It is a one-mile walk, door to door from the Marriott Cancun Resort, but you can also ride the public bus.

Maya ruins at San Miguelito Settlement

The modern structure is built high off the ground to protect the priceless collection of Mayan artifacts sourced from throughout the Yucatan from hurricanes. I tasked Ailigh to photograph the objects that most caught her attention as a way to give her visit some purpose. The best-kept secret is to explore the excavated ruins along a shaded, jungle path of the ancient San Miguelito Settlement, whose entrance is at the far end of the gardens beneath the museum and is marked only with a sign that says, “Zona Arqueologica.”

Though most of the ruins are simply stone foundations, there is one small pyramid. You’ll also hear tons of birds and see lazy iguanas wherever there’s a patch of sun. It is a poignant reminder that before this barrier island was loaded with hotels, it was the home of the ancients whose language, culture and beliefs still form the bedrock of this most-eastern tip of Mexico that juts into the Caribbean Sea.

One day, I long to climb with her to the top of pyramids that rise above the jungle and swim side-by-side, deep into the cenotes (natural pools, caves and caverns that have formed within the limestone substrate), where together we will experience more of the mysterious Mayan magic.

Las Hijas de la Tostada


Every single mention in this story is located on Kukulcan Blvd., Cancun. It’s the main drag along which the entire Hotel Zone is situated.

Where to Stay

  • Marriott operates two resort properties that sit side-by-side in the Hotel Zone. Marriott Cancun Resort (formerly known as Casa Magna but recently rebranded) is great for families and offers a full-slate of daily programming from outdoor movies to friendly cooking competitions.

Peekaboo views of the Caribbean from the pool-deck at the Marriott Cancun Resort

Where to Eat

  • Guests at the Marriott Cancun Resort and the JW Marriott Resort & Spa can choose from nine on-site international restaurants offering everything from pizza slices (and $2 bottled beer) in the gift shop to the energetic entertainment of a hibachi steakhouse (my daughter loved the interactive experience, and being able to have her meal prepared simply as grilled chicken, broccoli and rice). The kitchen at Sedona Grill creates a nightly Mexican buffet made of many traditional dishes, such as Chile en Nogada, a poblano chili stuffed with spiced ground beef and smothered in a walnut cream sauce (I remembered it from one of my favorite films, Like Water for Chocolate). We celebrated Ailigh’s birthday dinner with a special ice cream bomb prepared by the chef and an unforgettable serenade by mariachis with mad skills.
  • Off property, I recommend Las Hijas de la Tostada, an open-air casual restaurant that overlooks the lagoon’s mangroves and whose menu is loaded with fresh seafood and spicy salsas. If your kid’s palate is limited to quesadillas, they’ve got you covered, too. I’ve also really enjoyed La Destileria reachable by bus or taxi. It has a dining room with a nice vibe and a large covered deck overlooking the lagoon that is perfect for sunset. Start with the delicious house cocktail, the Tequilibrio, combining tequila with fresh juices and a salted rim. Take the edge off with tableside-prepared guacamole and tequila cheese, served flaming with—what else—tequila.

Beautiful architecture at the Marriott Cancun Resort

Getting There  

  • Central Floridians have terrific access to Cancun on JetBlue. Direct daily flights out of MCO are two hours long, and there is a one-hour time difference (Orlando time is one hour ahead of Cancun time).
  • Every traveler must have a passport that is valid for a minimum of six months beyond the entry date.

About Megan Padilla
Megan may live in Orlando, but her friends know she and her family are gypsy nomads at heart. Follow her on Instagram @travelswithmeg.

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